Halloween Havoc!: ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (Paramount 1932)

Universal Pictures kicked off the horror trend of the early 30’s with DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN , and soon every studio in Hollywood, both major and minor, jumped on the terror train. Paramount was the first to hop on board with an adaptation of Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE , earning Fredric March an Oscar for his dual role. Soon there was DR. X (Warners), THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (RKO), FREAKS and THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (both MGM), and THE MONSTER WALKS and WHITE ZOMBIE from the indies. Paramount released ISLAND OF LOST SOULS at the end of 1932, a film so shocking and perverse it was banned in Britain for over a quarter century, and still manages to frighten even the most jaded of horror fans today.

Based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, the film begins with shipwrecked Edward Parker being rescued by The Covena, a cargo ship carrying a freight of wild animals to the uncharted island of Dr. Moreau, located in the South Pacific. Moreau is called “a scientific genius” by his associate aboard ship, Dr. Montgomery, but though ship’s Captain Davies labels him a “grave robbing ghoul” Parker gets into an altercation with the drunken captain, who strands him on the island. As Montgomery leads Parker through the jungle to Moreau’s home, the young man notices something strange about the island natives, something he can’t quite put his finger on.

It is now we meet Dr. Moreau: a white-suited, whip-cracking, portly figure who’s beard gives him a Satanic visage. The courteous Moreau invites Parker to spend the night, and leave with Montgomery in the morning, yet he has sinister ulterior motives. Moreau is a vivisectionist who has been experimenting with “organic evolution”, turning animals into half-human monstrosities in his ‘House of Pain’. The natives Parker encountered were the results of those mad experiments, but Moreau’s had more success with Lota, half-human/half-panther, and wants to find out how much human emotion she has by introducing her to the handsome Parker, hoping perhaps they’ll mate!

When Parker finds out about Moreau’s deviant research projects, he tries to escape with Lota (not yet realizing she, too, is half-human), but they’re stopped by the Manimals. Moreau rescues the pair, cracking his whip and forcing the beasts to recite The Law (“Not to spill blood”, “Not to eat meat”). After explaining his scientific discoveries to Parker, it’s discovered the schooner has sunk, leaving Parker no alternative but to stay longer. Lota has caught feelings for Parker, and they kiss, but to Parker’s horror, he feels large panther claws digging into his back! She’s reverting back to animal state, and Moreau returns her to his ‘House of Pain’. Meanwhile, Parker’s fiance Ruth has arrived with Captain Donahue, and Moreau’s plans to mate a human with his weird creations changes…

Shock follows shock in this gripping, gruesome film from director Erle C. Kenton, who began his career back in 1916. Kenton and his cinematographer Karl Struss use shadows and light to create an eerie ambiance, with that trademark Paramount early 30’s filmed-through-gauze style. Struss was well noted for shooting F.W. Murnau’s Expressionistic classic SUNRISE, and became one of the studio’s ace cinematographers. Kenton was strictly a ‘B’ director, and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is probably his greatest film achievement. He later helmed Universal’s 40’s Monster Rallies (GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN,  HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN , HOUSE OF DRACULA ) and Abbott & Costello comedies (PARDON MY SARONG, WHO DONE IT?, IT AIN’T HAY), as well as the 1948  exploitation drama BOB AND SALLY, which covered everything from abortion to alcoholism to VD in a little over an hour!

Charles Laughton  gives a bravura performance as Moreau, outwardly charming and cultivated yet harboring a deep rooted insanity. A lesser actor would’ve went over the top with a part as juicy as Moreau, but Laughton shows great restraint in bringing the mad doctor to life, even when uttering the tempting line, “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”. Laughton’s Dr. Moreau is up there in the pantheon of 1930’s horror performances, and though he’d give us more fine film roles (Henry VIII, Ruggles, Inspector Javert, Captian Bligh, Quasimodo) his Moreau remains my personal favorite.

Square jawed hero Richard Arlen has what’s probably his most unusual role of his career as Parker (except maybe his Cheshire Cat in ALICE IN WONDERLAND , but as usual he nails it. Bela Lugosi appears, almost unrecognizable except for that Hungarian voice, as the hairy-faced Sayer of the Law, leader of the Manimals. Leila Hyams isn’t given much to do as Ruth,but she’s always a welcome presence. Arthur Hohl (Montgomery), Stanely Fields (Davies), and Paul Hurst (Donahue) offer strong support.

Then there’s Lota the Panther Woman. She’s played by 19 year old Kathleen Burke, who won a talent contest in Chicago for the chance be in the film. Burke brings a savage beauty to the part, and is quite good for a novice in her first time out. Miss Burke altogether made 22 films, among them MURDERS IN THE ZOO (another horror effort, starring Lionel Atwill), LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (as a Russian seductress), THE LAST OUTPOST, and BOY OF THE STREETS, before retiring in 1938 and returning to Chicago. Kathleen Burke passed away in 1980.

Those half-human monstrosities were created by makeup wizard Wally Westmore and Charlie Gemora (who also appears early as a gorilla in a cage). Each and every Manimal is unique unto itself, which must have been painstaking work for the makeup department, but well worth the effort. The revolt of the Manimals against Moreau is one of the most chilling scenes in early horror history, and ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU is a bona fide horror classic that genre lovers do not want to miss.

 

Halloween Havoc!: GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (Universal 1942)

The success of Universal’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN meant a sequel was inevitable, and the studio trotted out GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN three years later. Horror stalwarts Bela Lugosi (as the broken-necked Ygor) and Lionel Atwill (although in a decidedly different role than the previous film) were back, but for the first time it wasn’t Boris Karloff under Jack Pierce’s monster makeup. Instead, Lon Chaney Jr., fresh off his triumph as THE WOLF MAN , stepped into those big asphalter’s boots as The Monster. But while SON OF was an ‘A’ budget production, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN begins The Monster’s journey into ‘B’ territory.

Old Ygor is still alive and well, “playing his weird harp” at deserted Castle Frankenstein. The villagers (including Dwight Frye! ) are in an uproar (as villagers are wont to do), complaining “the curse of Frankenstein” has left them in poverty, and storm the castle to blow it up once and for all. The Monster gets jarred loose from his sulfur-pit grave, in a weakened condition (and without his fur vest), and escapes with Ygor into the night. A storm is brewing (because that’s how things go in these movies), and The Monster reaches out to the lightning. “Your father was Frankenstein, but your mother was the lightning”, says Ygor, and they’re off to see The Wizard… actually, to see Ludwig, “the second son of Frankenstein”.

Ludwig von Frankenstein lives at an estate in the village of Vasaria, specializing in “Diseases of the Mind” (it says so right on the sign). Ludwig and his two assistants, Drs. Bohmer and Kettering, perform a successful brain operation, but Bohmer harbors deep resentments (“in those days, I was the master, Frankenstein was just a pupil…. but I made a slight miscalculation”). Meanwhile, Ygor and The Monster arrive in Vasaria, asking a pretty young villager for directions to Frankenstein’s home (and the fact she doesn’t flee in terror at the sight of these two boggles the mind!). When The Monster helps the little child Cloestine retrieve her ball from a rooftop, he shows compassion… which is more than the villagers show, as a cadre of cops subdue him.

Village prosecutor Erick, who happens to be Ludwig’s daughter Elsa von Frankenstein’s boyfriend (what a coincidence!), asks Ludwig to examine the “madman” who’s “already killed two villagers”. When Erick leaves, Ygor appears, asking Ludwig to “harness the lightning” and return his friend to full strength, or he’ll spill the beans about Ludwig’s true ancestry (although the name Frankenstein is probably a dead giveaway). At the inquest, The Monster recognizes his ‘brother’ Ludwig and breaks free of his chains, escaping with Ygor in a waiting cart. Meanwhile, Elsa finds her grandfather’s diary on Ludwig’s desk and begins reading, giving the filmmakers the opportunity to utilize stock footage from the 1931 classic (and giving Dwight Frye the opportunity to appear in two different roles!).

The dastardly duo return to Frankenstein’s lab, where The Monster kills Dr. Kettering. Ludwig turns on the “knockout gas” to render them unconscious (and his own daughter in the process). Ludwig decides the only way to stop this madness is to “dissect” The Monster, but receives a ghostly visitation from his father (hence the title), and changes his plan: he’ll remove The Monster’s criminal brain and transplant the brain of Dr. Kettering! Ygor protests, wanting instead his own brain transplanted in The Monster’s body, and The Monster himself has an idea of his own… use Cloestine’s little brain! The sneaky Dr. Bohmer conspires with Ygor, and they pull a switcheroo, and Ygor now has “the strength of a hundred men” (and speaks with the voice of Lugosi!). But The Ygor Monster goes blind, result of a wrong blood type, and goes berserk just as the villagers blow the whole place to Kingdom Come!

Despite my glibness, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN is an enjoyable entry in the Universal Horror canon. The main problem is Scott Darling’s silly script, but the all-star cast of horror veterans and director Erle C. Kenton (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS) somehow make it work.  Lugosi’s Ygor is one of his classic roles, and Atwill as Dr. Bohmer shows once again why he was the best mad doctor in the business. Sir Cedric Hardwicke (THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS ) takes his Ludwig von Frankenstein seriously, and WOLF MAN costars Ralph Bellamy and Evelyn Ankers are lovers Erick and Elsa. Little Janet Ann Gallow (Cloestine) is expressionless and wooden, but like Donnie Donagan in SON OF…, she’s just a kid, so I’ll cut her a break.

As for Lon Chaney Jr. as The Monster, he really isn’t given much to do besides bring his imposing physical presence and brute strength to the part. He doesn’t even get to grunt like Karloff, but that may be due to The Monster’s weakened condition. Later in the film, after the brain transplant takes place, Lon perks up a bit, miming the words overdubbed by Lugosi. This change in character leads directly to the next sequel, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN… or rather, it was supposed to, as we’ll find out…

Halloween Havoc!: HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (Universal 1944)

hof1

Frankenstein’s Monster! The Wolf Man! Dracula! The Mad Doctor! The Hunchback! And just about every classic horror film trope you can think of! They’re all here in Universal’s “Monster Rally” HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN! Throwing everything scary they could think of at you but a kitchen sink full of spiders, Universal decided if one monster was good, five is better. Boris Karloff as mad Dr.Neimann leads the parade of horror all-stars that includes Lon Chaney Jr (The Wolf Man), John Carradine (Dracula), Lionel Atwill (Inspector Arnz), and George Zucco  (Professor Lampini).

hof2

The movie is laid out like a serial, with the chapters kept moving swiftly along by director Erle C. Kenton. Neimann and his hunchbacked assistant Daniel escape from prison and come across Professor Lampini’s traveling Chamber of Horrors. Lampini claims to have the skeletal remains of the original Count Dracula, and he and Neimann discuss vampire lore. When Lampini refuses to take the pair to Reigleburg, Daniel kills him and his driver. Neimann’s on two missions: one to find the secret diary of Dr. Frankenstein, and the other to exact revenge on the men who imprisoned him. Hussman is the burgomeister of Reigleburg, and when Neimann sees him, he inadvertently pulls the stake from Dracula’s remains. The Count returns to life, and strikes a bargain with Neimann. Dracula (using the alias Baron Latos) offer a ride in his coach to Hussman, grandson Karl, and Karl’s wife Rita. After killing the old burgomeister, Dracula kidnaps Rita. Karl calls Inspector Arnz and his men, and they hunt the vampire down. Dracula is destroyed when he can’t make it to his coffin before sunrise, but Neimann and Daniel escape and move on to the town of Frankenstein.

hof3

They stop at a gypsy camp where Daniel is enamored by the beautiful dancing gypsy Ilonka. She’s beaten by her man, and Daniel nearly kills him. Neimann reluctantly lets her go with them as they search the grounds of Castle Frankenstein. Discovering a “glacial ice cavern”, they find both Frankenstein’s notebook and the frozen remains of The Monster and The Wolf Man. Thawing them out, the group head for Vasaria and Neimann’s old lab.

Neimann and Daniel abduct Strauss and Ullman, the last two men responsible for Neimann’s sentence. The doctor announces his plan to put The Wolf Man’s brain in Strauss’s body and Ullman’s in the Monster. Things get hectic as Larry Talbot keeps changing back and forth into the Wolf Man, Ilonka falls in love with Larry, Daniel gets jealous, and the Monster is revived. The final striggle finds the Monster dragging Neimann to his doom in the quicksand laden marshes.

hof4

J. Carrol Naish steals the acting honors from the horror vets as Daniel. Naish was a superb character actor who was nominated for Oscars twice (SAHARA, A MEDAL FOR BENNY). He played ethnic parts well: Italian, Arab, even Chinese, but was an Irishman from New York himself. Naish’s last film was also with Chaney, DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN (1971). Elena Verdugo, Anne Gwynne, Glenn Strange, Peter Coe, Sig Ruman, and Phillip Van Zandt also appear in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Hans J. Salter’s music score is one of the best in horror pics, and George Robinson’s moody camerawork sets the spooky tone. Two more sequels were made, HOUSE OF DRACULA and ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN,then the Universal Monsters were seen no more. Giant bugs and outer space aliens took their place, until Universal released their monstrous backlog of movies to television in the late 50s, where they found a new audience of mostly kids eager to be scared by the old boogeymen. The Monster Boom was back on, and soon there was “Famous Monsters” magazine and TV horror hosts from coast to coast and Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett singing The Monster Mash. The Universal Horrors are still going strong today, thanks to DVDs and TCM and readers like you, still interested in watching them and reading about them. Thus ends a month-long series of “Halloween Havoc!” Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch some horror films!